Amazon licenses fan fiction e-books

The Guardian reports that Amazon are launching a platform for fan fiction e-books. The deal provides revenue for both the original and the fan authors. Of course, the rights holders must sign up before a franchise is opened to the platform.

A collection of established authors has already begun dabbling in the world of fan fiction via Amazon. “There’s probably not an author/fangirl alive who hasn’t fantasised about being able to write about her favourite show. The fact that you can earn royalties doing so makes it even better,” said romance author Trish Milburn, who has been writing in The Vampire Diaries universe.

From the Amazon Kindle Worlds announcment:

Get ready for Kindle Worlds, a place for you to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games. With Kindle Worlds, you can write new stories based on featured Worlds, engage an audience of readers, and earn royalties. Amazon Publishing has secured licenses from Warner Bros. Television Group’s Alloy Entertainment for Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries, with licenses for more Worlds on the way.

The Kindle Worlds Self-Service Submission Platform will launch soon and enable you to submit your original works for publication.

UPDATE: At the Guardian article, commenter Mikes005 noted that author and SFWA president John Scalzi has weighed in on this:

there are a number of things about the deal Amazon/Alloy are offering that raise red flags for me. Number one among these is this bit:

“We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.”

i.e., that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you — which is to say they make money off your idea, lots of money, even, and all you get is the knowledge they liked your idea.

And it gets worse:

“Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.”

Which is to say, once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever. Again, an excellent deal for Amazon; a less than excellent deal for the actual writer.

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You own your device. Who owns your books?

The thing about the ebook is that it empowers the reader, right? It may one day enable mash ups and guerilla edits, it already allows readers to reach out to one another via networked comments. It will blur the boundaries between writer and reader.

But there’s another way of looking at this. Large software and hardware companies have long been unhappy with the control users have over their computers. In the nineties a computer user saw a computer as a space she owned and onto which she chose to install software. One consequence of the new always-online cloud-oriented market (as spearheaded by the rise of tablets and smart phones) is that corporations exert ever more control over your desktop or palmtop environment. It’s still possible to install software on your iPhone that doesn’t originate from the App Store, but Apple make it very hard. What was a right is now a near-crime. Windows CEO Steve Ballmer compared open source software to cancer over a decade ago. Partly this was a reference to the nature of some open source licences, but there’s a strong element of distaste there for a movement which militantly places users in control of both their software and hardware.

At present, ebooks are pretty standalone things. They are documents. And, DRM notwithstanding, it is possible to make physical copies of any books you purchase. Possible, but not necessarily legal. In fact it looks as if buying an ebook is actually more like a lease arrangement. I can’t lend you an ebook, I can’t leave my book collection to my children, and if Amazon take against me they can recall my Kindle library at will. Even if one might theoretically route around this in the short term, the dynamic elements of texts will probably become more important in future. Or book distributors might take a leaf from the games industry and require some kind of network key for book access. Increasingly the soul of a book may move away from the downloaded document and inhere in the gateway. This would centralise power even further in the hands of the distributor (that’s people like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google and not the publishers, though these distinctions may change over time).

Microsoft have been interested in the ebook market forever. I was working at a magazine in the nineties when they pitched a plan at boardroom level. They claimed people would be downloading books at 7/11 stores Real Soon Now (they were still in pretty heavy internet denial at the time), and Microsoft would own the distribution system. If the rumours are correct, Microsoft are now positioning themselves to remove the Nook reader from the market and leverage its digital content.

So perhaps we’re seeing companies taking rival devices out of circulation and consolidating digital marketplaces. At the same time the consumer’s dependence upon distributors for continuing access to books continues to grow. I wonder who benefits.

Margaret Atwood’s Three Reason to Keep Physical Books

I got this embed (below) of Margaret Atwood talking about physical books versus ebooks from Biblioklept.

Summary of Margaret’s points

The three reasons for keeping physical books are:

  1. solar flares which might wipe out electronic media
  2. grid overloads resulting in brown outs
  3. internet overload (bandwidth/storage limits, too much spam/porn)

Electronic storage is fragile. If you want keep something permanently you probably want it in paper format. That’s why you can’t make e-wills.

But paper drives people crazy — it takes up so much room.

Ebooks offer portability, accessibilty, access to many books. Ebooks will probably increase reading.

But ebooks remove serendipidy — the store browse factor. How can one recreate that in e-formats?

Ebooks can also be good for those with reading difficulties – can isolate text / make it bigger.

Some notes
Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere make some similar points about the fragility of electronic formats in This is Not the End of the Book. Networks can be disrupted, and we burn through formats in less and less time. They also point out that books are not permanent, and that the history of culture is the history of deletion, of filtering. They claim that this is partly a virtue. Choosing what to save when the barbarians are at the gate results in a kind of natural selection. Ebooks might disappear in a more indiscriminatory and sudden fashion, and in the meantime the sheer amount of information available online is making evaluation harder and harder.

(Actually, of course, ebooks are not stored in RAM. If your power goes down temporarily, you can still retrieve the data later. If your power goes down permanently, well then, I guess, you discover you can’t burn ebooks to keep warm).

The serendipidy argument is a good one. This is the kind of thing that Amazon have been trying to manage online which hasn’t stopped them (tacitly or otherwise) encouraging consumers to browse in bookshops and then buy online. It’s this problem that prompted HarperCollins CEO Victoria Barnsley to suggest that bricks and morter booksellers might consider charging for browsing.

The embed

How book-shaped should books be?

I love the word skeuomorphic. Skew-O-Morphic. It sounds like a twisted kind of superpower. In fact, it means a design that resembles a material or technology other than itself. Computer interfaces use skeuomorphs as metaphors (desktops, wastebaskets, radios, filing cabinets and so on). This practice often heralds a period of transition. People are encouraged to see something new in terms of something old so that they can grasp its purpose. Often inventors and designers must themselves use the shapes of past technologies in order to discover new vocabularies of design. A car is a horseless carriage until it’s just a car.

So what about the book? In the New Statesman a couple of months ago Tom Abba argued that the future of the the book shouldn’t be skeuomorphic.

He says:

…with notable exceptions like The Silent History on iPad, the knee-jerk reaction of the publishing industry has been to copy the form of a physical book, skeuomorphically, creating something that bears a resemblance to print but doesn’t do much else besides.

This, he argues, is to fail to exploit the possibilities of digital and network capable texts. I’ll encounter some of these possibilities, no doubt, in future posts. Not least of which will be Abba’s own collaboration (with Nick Harkaway and Neil Gaiman among others) these pages fall like ash.

Story is at the heart of this project. REACT’s Books and Print programme asks us to consider what happens when digital technology meets reading and writing. Our response is to define a grammar for writing in a digital space, where attention is a commodity and interaction is an anticipated mode of engagement. We chose to work with two writers who have each, in their own way, explored the grammar of writing platforms—be that television, comics, novels or radio—and whose voices we can add to our own, and those of our audience to create something singularly new.

I’m not sure that Abba quite nails what this is all about in his article.. which, I suppose, is precisely the point when a design vocabulary doesn’t yet exist. But clearly there’s some interesting blurring of the roles of reader and writer, ideas about collaborative storytelling, evolving texts and so on. All worth exploring. It would be nice if we could have all that and still keep something vaguely book-shaped, though. Not least so that I can say skeuomorphic for a while yet.

Interactivity interupts immersion?

At the Observer, Anna Baddeley looked at an iPad version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. She concludes:

I find interactivity exasperating. Prod, prod, prod to reveal gobbets of text, trace code symbols with your finger to unlock a door, search for a notebook and tap to look inside: it’s engaging for five minutes, but then it’s just tiring. Especially because the pace is determined not by you, but the app.

This seems a pretty compelling point. Perhaps because one kind of narrative, a linear textual story, is being forced into a different form: a more organic game-like interface?

Interesting too, that a whiz-bang interface has the effect of slowing down a reading. Puzzles are part of the appeal of game playing, of course, and stories contain puzzles. But these are different animals. A computer game may trap you in a locked room until you’ve discovered a combination. A traditional narrative sweeps you forward even while you wrestle with its enigmas. Being forced to put a story on hold for any reason could make for a frustrating reading experience.